There was a time not very long ago when I believed that most human beings could be reached through reason. You know: you make what you consider a solid and persuasive argument, back it up with hard facts, and you assume that the average person will agree eventually with what you have to say. And if they don't agree, you would hope that it's because they had solid arguments themselves to back up their own positions.
But as I've gotten older I've begun to realize that human beings are influenced much more by things like strong emotions (fear, anger, indignation), ideology, and social prejudices than by logic, reason, or rationality. Case in point: The South. The Huffington Post had a wonderful article recently that shows just how backwards the entire region we call the South is on just about any measure of social progress:
(LOTS OF PICTURES...I PROMISE!)
The South is poorer, less upwardly mobile, more unhealthy, and much unhappier than the rest of the country. One would think that the people who live in these southern states would welcome any sort of governmental assistance that they can get, but that's not the case. In fact, southern states are at the forefront of the movement to cut government programs that assist the most vulnerable members of the society (children, the handicapped, the mentally ill, substance abusers, the elderly, and pregnant women). Reason all you want with a southerner who thinks that government is the problem, but it probably won't convince him that many of the social difficulties that he experiences in his state are in fact the result of too little government, not too much.
Prior to the last presidential election, film-maker Angela Pelosi tried to understand the anti-governmental attitudes of people in Mississippi, one of the most backward states in the Union, according to the data in the Huffington Post article. While the people she interviewed may be more extreme than the average Mississippian, the attitudes expressed seem to be typical, insofar as the citizens of this state continue to vote consistently against their own self-interest:
I'm not trying to pick on the South here. I'm sure that there are many fine, decent people living south of the Mason-Dixon line. And I don't think that the cult of the irrational exists solely in the south. For example, Pelosi also interviewed citizens of New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy to ask anti-government folks there what programs should be cut from the federal budget. The answers that she received to this question were as painful as they were funny:
Keep in mind that these were all people who thought that the size of government ought to be cut substantially, but, when they had to explain exactly which government programs ought to be cut, they seemed to become transformed all of a sudden into New York liberals. Once again, ideology and self-interest trump logic and reason.
So, if large segments of our American population seem to be totally impervious to rational arguments and even self-evident facts, how is it possible to persuade such individuals of the "truth"? Either one has to resort to flagrantly rhetorical appeals to emotion (hardly philosophical) or one attempts to engage in rational discourse, knowing that his or her arguments will inevitably fall on deaf ears.
In short, how can philosophical argumentation work at all in a society where the average citizen hasn't been educated to understand the value of reason in the first place? It's a dilemma that I don't have any easy answers for. I can't help thinking, however, that this great love affair that we Americans are currently having with the irrational doesn't bode too well for the future of our country.